The Telos of a University

Mark C. Henrie

Why go to college?

Here is a peculiarity of American life today: The young man or woman in high school invests enormous time and energy in the process of choosing and applying to the best colleges and universities within reach. Guidebooks are consulted, campus visits made, prep courses for the SAT or ACT taken with genuine zeal. Essays are honed and polished beyond anything ever written for a class assignment. Applications are placed in the mail, and students then fret day and night about the status of their case. In time, various envelopes arrive by return mail, some large and some small. Students rejoice over the large ones, and the business of leaving home commences with a round of summer purchases of appropriate clothing and other accoutrements of college life. Finally, our young Americans find themselves participating in a matriculation ceremony in the richly-paneled hall of some ivy-covered building. They have arrived at last at college. The only question they’ve never really asked themselves is this: Why am I going to college in the first place?

You must confess it’s an obvious question, and one obviously unasked by most of us. We may conclude from the fact that it regularly remains unasked that a college education is believed, according to the unexamined conventions of our society, to be a self-evident, incontestable good. Few parents would prefer their child not to go to college. This, despite the qualms of a certain Saul of Tarsus, known to us as St. Paul, who wrote to the Greek Christians at Corinth, “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” and who affirmed that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” This, despite also the poet Thomas Gray, who exclaimed with great feeling that “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” Powerful voices in the Western tradition raise cogent warnings about the value of acquiring higher education, with its attendant worldly wisdom and savoir faire. But such voices clearly represent a minority opinion in our society.

II. Bad Answers

Why, really, are you going to college? Let us a look at an array of possible answers.

Some people in our society point out that you can’t get very far in American economic life without a college or perhaps even a post-graduate degree. College, according to these people, is valuable for garnering useful knowledge of a general sort, and graduate school is valuable for garnering a more specialized professional knowledge. Both sorts of knowledge are valued so far as they advance an everyday life of “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth put it.

This is necessarily one part of the story. Sadly, however, some believe that this is the whole story, the last word about higher education—which is why some parents insist, wrongly, that their children major in something “useful,” like economics or business administration. Those who believe as these do are keen to introduce into the undergraduate curriculum courses and majors that teach skills necessary for successful entry into the labor force of an advanced post-industrial society—courses such as personnel management and graphic design and marketing. But if the primary end of higher education were merely the acquisition of the skills necessary for success in our particular economic system, then would we not better occupy the years of early adulthood in some form of technical school? Or better still, in a series of internships in various corporations? This is, in fact, a path one may take on the road to corporate and managerial success in England. John Major, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, did not have a college degree. That Americans do not generally follow such a path tells us that our society considers the value of college to lie in something more than merely the acquisition of “useful” or “professional” knowledge.

So why is college valuable?

Other people champion the irreplaceable importance of the “college experience” for human maturation. What matters, they argue, is not the knowledge and skill acquired in coursework so much as the life of the university, which facilitates the maturation of its students. But what exactly is the life of the university, the so-called college experience? Dormitory living? Fraternity pledging? All-nighters? The subtle emotions of young love finally running free from parental supervision? Near-absolute autonomy in the disposition of one’s time? Hanging out with friends? How do these prepare students for the responsibilities of adulthood? At a minimum, does the typical daily regimen of a college student really prepare him for a lifetime of working in an office from nine to five—or, as is increasingly common in our society today, from eight to seven? The modern college experience is in fact remarkably well designed to unfit the student for adult life.

Others champion the learning that takes place outside the college classroom—that is, among peers. Under the proper circumstances and rightly understood, there is much truth in this view. In most American circumstances, however, even at the most elite universities, the claim is dubious. For what Americans usually mean when they speak of learning “outside the classroom” is that the young person at university must navigate an array of new relationships with various human types and must do so without the social and psychological support of parents or siblings. Consequently, the student must practice a range of heretofore undeveloped personal and social skills. But if this new experience of the variety of human personalities is held to be the particular excellence of a university education, then we must ask: Wouldn’t one learn even more from interacting with the variety of men and women found in a working environment—say on a construction site, where cooperation in a common activity would be necessary, and where the range of relationships would extend also to differences in marital status, social class, hierarchical authority, and age?

The matter of age diversity, inevitable in the real world (so to speak), but artificially absent from the university environment, is key. Our society romantically idealizes youth in an unrealistic and ultimately untenable manner. Young people have short-sighted moral imaginations, and our educational system seldom asks them to reflect on what is necessary for a complete life. What Ivy League or Big Ten school, for example, challenges its students with the question: Am I now forming the habits and thus becoming the kind of person who can successfully enter into marriage and be a responsible mother or father? In largely failing to confront students with the human goods appropriate to the various stages of a human life, contemporary American civilization is in at least one respect clearly inferior to East Asian civilizations, which have long been oriented to a cultivation of the virtues necessary for a complete life.

The academic guardians of our cultural patrimony have succumbed to a more sophisticated version of the low views outlined here. Distinguished academics now say—in classrooms, in print, even in matriculation and convocation addresses—that the sole aim of the university is to expose students todiversity. In their encounters with diversity, these academics assert, students will learn to overcome the intellectual and moral parochialism of their (presumably) privileged social origins and to appreciate the universality of difference. Students will thus learn to smile knowingly at any use of the word truth, unless it appears in ironizing quotation marks. Let us call this the multiculturalist account of the university—multiculturalist in that it champions diversity for diversity’s sake alone.

Colleges and universities realize this enthusiasm for diversity by programmatically rejecting a common core curriculum and by multiplying specialized forms of identity studies. Above all, this is confusing. A core-less curriculum implies that the best way to prepare to confront a confused and chaotic world—the post-modern world—is a confused and chaotic course of study. The Platonists believed that a divine harmony ultimately ruled the universe, and that the goal or telos of all education was to achieve a like harmony in the city and in the soul: The interior world of the soul, the microcosm, must come to correspond with the exterior world of law-governed harmony in the macrocosm. The current enthusiasm for maximizing diversity in university studies is thus a perverted form of Platonism. It likewise seeks to bring the soul of the student into conformity with the order of the cosmos, but the nihilist belief at its foundation is that chaos ultimately rules in the macrocosm—“having displaced Zeus,” as Aristophanes put it in his play The Clouds.

Notice at least three other problems with the push for diversity-education, the championing of diversity for its own sake.

It is deeply political: The university is immediately at the service of the surrounding society, rendered democratically “useful” as one among many means of reconciling potential political conflict through the equal recognition of interest groups with their various partisan understandings of the common good.

It demands the abandonment of critical judgment in encounters with Otherness: Its telos is a human being who possesses a relatively uncritical appreciation for every difference as well as a compatible, amiable democratic tolerance. Whatever one may think of this moral attitude, one must agree that it has nothing whatsoever to do with intellectual excellence, which is always a matter of making distinctions, of discriminating rightly.

And, finally, it involves little true diversity: Far from learning about the high cultures of various lands and ages, its students absorb quasi-Marxist critiques of our own civilization. Rather than learning about Aztec and Chinese and Hindu cultural achievements, they study Marxist critics in contemporary Algeria and Marxist critics in contemporary Brazil and post-Marxist critics in contemporary France. In unguarded moments, their professors render critical judgments of the cultural features of other times and lands in the name of certain contemporary post-Marxist, and therefore Western, notions of progress, freedom, equality, and social justice. The xenocentrism of these academics is a means for undermining their own civilization, the West—or, more precisely, anything and everything belonging to the West that has persisted since before the dawn of modernity.

Strikingly, therefore, by this account, the university is not ordered primarily toward the perfection of the human mind. Rather, proponents of diversity-education subscribe to the view of John Stuart Mill, who wrote, “Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates”—Socrates, called the gadfly of Athens. Athens, says the modern university, executed its gadfly for corrupting the youth of Athens by raising doubts about religious institutions, prevailing customs, and the wisdom of their elders, but later, Socrates was recognized as one of the highest exemplars of human excellence. And thus, says the modern university, whereas Athens executed its gadfly, we Americans, we Westerners, build institutions that have as their intention and their glory the rearing up of gadflies.

It is true that Socrates was a gadfly, but it does not follow that all gadflies are Socrates. The historical Socrates, unlike the Socrates of Mill’s retelling, seems to have been careful to limit his speculative discussions to certain young friends, and he never challenged Athenian conventions publicly. He had no critique of Athenian society meant to lead to a political or moral program. And he certainly had no particular interest in cultivating his individuality. For Socrates, unlike Mill, the Socratic life was not about being original. It was about coming to understand and know the truth, and the place to begin that search was in common opinion or conventional wisdom. A liberal education was previously understood to mean a broad education, the purpose of which was to move the student’s attention toward higher things—Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said.” Students developed their intellectual capacities through exposure to a diversity of disciplines and their historical imagination through exposure to a diversity of past times and places. Chemists studied T.S. Eliot, poets studied calculus, and everybody studied Homer. Liberal education was understood to be hierarchical, discriminating, judgmental, and above all, critical. Here lay the root of the problem which has led us to the post-modern deconstruction of higher education. Mill’s reinterpretation of Socrates established dogmatic criticism at the center of the American understanding of intellectual virtue. The American intelligentsia, following Mill, tended to presume that virtually all traditional opinions and customs lacked rational foundation and called for reform. “The examined life” advocated by Socrates became identified in America with originality—or, rather, novelty. The burden of proof in moral argument thus transferred from the proponents of innovation to the defenders of tradition. Practically speaking, Mill’s critical man is blind to the possibility that there might be true wisdom in received traditions. He is suited for permanent—if orderly—revolution. In positing the good in a rationally-constructed future, he finds himself estranged from goods once possessed. Critical man is always a revisionist, but has no coherent account of why such revision is good. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Karl Marx put it in another context. The Millian view of the life of the mind, a view so widely received by American academics by the middle of the twentieth century, paved the way for the radically destructive critique of one’s own that dominates today’s multicultural account of the university.

But what happens to the purpose of higher education now that Mill’s critical temper has itself become a received, traditional opinion? At least one thing will happen: The way is open at last to reconsider the value of tradition. Tradition becomes the truly critical alternative.

III. The Idea of a University

All human activity whatsover is done for the sake of some end. Why then do we go to college? What end, what telos, should we have in view?

So far we have seen that the acquisition of useful knowledge is not the primary goal of a university education. While as a practical matter we must keep in mind our career, no human being is defined entirely by his work. Professional man is not the telos of liberal education. Neither is the amiable, relativist post-modern man, proffered as the goal of diversity-education. We have also seen how this clear perversion of liberal learning follows from the tendencies implicit in the immediately previous pedagogic regime, Mill’s style of education for critical man. We see in any event that to answer our question, Why go to college?, we must answer the question, What sort of human being should we wish to become?What are the real alternatives to professional man, post-modern man, and dogmatically critical man?

John Henry Newman is the philosophical soul in our tradition who reflected most deeply and comprehensively on the meaning of a liberal education. Newman was probably the greatest mind, perhaps even the greatest man, of the nineteenth century, and he still has much to teach us. Ironically, Newman wrote his lectures on The Idea of a University at about the same time that John Stuart Mill was exalting the individuality of critical man in On Liberty. They came to very different conclusions.

It is impossible to give a full account of Newman’s thought here, but just like today, Newman had to contend with the view that higher education must prove itself by a utilitarian standard. He rejected that servile view. Rather, there is a human end, a non-instrumental end, to higher education—an end valued for its own sake. For Newman, the goal of a university education is always the “enlargement of mind,” or “illumination,” or “philosophy.” With none of these terms is he quite content, however. Rather, he gropes for a term which may be predicated to the mind in the same way in which “health” is predicated to the body. The end of liberal education is the health of the mind. We desire health for what a healthy body allows us to accomplish but also for its own sake, and so too with an enlarged or illuminated mind. Just as with bodies health is achieved through exercising all the parts, so too, Newman claims, the health of the intellect is achieved through the broadest education possible. In Newman’s historical circumstances, his educational ideal was at least partially realized in the classical curriculum of Oxford University. Newman’s Idea offered a non-traditional defense of nineteenth-century England’s traditional form of higher education.

Newman’s Idea of a University argued in part against a proposal for establishing secular universities in British-ruled Ireland, but his essay was also directed against the preferred educational scheme of the Irish Catholic episcopate. Those bishops were perfectly content with seminary education for their bright young men. What is aimed at in seminaries and monasteries, however, is not so much mastery of a particular body of knowledge or of a scientific method, but mastery of the passions: training in moral virtue. Such an education is called ascesis. The student aims at a certain disposition of the soul with respect to acts. The promise of such an education is to make men moral, and so moral man is the telos of the seminary. What is oft not recognized is that there is a considerable element of ascesis in even the most philosophical of educations. Certain dispositions of the soul must be achieved in order to study: You have to sit in a chair for long hours when the sun and friends and Frisbees beckon, and the intellectual virtues are impossible without an initial ascetical training. But this ascetical dimension is here subordinated or placed in the service of a higher end.

In arguing for the value of broad learning, Newman was primarily addressing the English proponents of the scientific style of higher education then beginning to show its power in the German universities—Wissenschaft. This German pedagogic regime, which was in the first half of the twentieth century widely imitated in America, had as its aim the production of scientific men, specialists in the methods of one discipline of inquiry. Such men could, through the use of their methods, achieve ever more extensive discoveries of new knowledge, particularly in the natural sciences. Such scientific progress with its technological implications, utilitarians were quick to note, was also very useful to society at large. The program of Wissenschaft was a distinctly modern development of an assertion by Francis Bacon: that with appropriate methods, “even men of no great genius” might make certain progress in the sciences.

Newman’s response to the partisans of specialization and Wissenschaft was twofold. First, he observed that while the concentrated intellectual development of the German-style scientists had perhaps a practical advantage, the cost was the narrowing and diminishment (really, the partial mutilation) of the mind of each individual. No more could such specialization be recognized as intellectual health, desirable for its own sake, than an overdeveloped right arm in an otherwise neglected body could be understood as bodily health. Second, Newman insisted that a true understanding of the whole could only be achieved through a broad and balanced approach to the whole. The specialist, naturally impressed by the explanatory power which his discipline gives him in one narrow area of inquiry, is apt to overestimate his grasp of other matters: The biochemist presumes to speak on moral questions, as if ethics is not itself a serious study with methods very unlike those of the natural sciences. In fact, Newman would argue, there is less justification for crediting the ethical judgment of a biochemist who has not received a broadly liberal education than there is for crediting the judgment of a liberally educated man wholly lacking in any specialized knowledge of either biochemistry or ethics.

Newman’s arguments for broad studies are radically different from those of today’s proponents of diversity-education. The telos of each program differs, which has manifest effects on the curriculum. According to Newman, broad studies are undertaken as part of a disciplined effort to come to a view of the whole: That is, learning proceeds with the assumption that there is truth out there to be found. The mind is opened by the variety of studies so that, to gloss Chesterton, it will at length close upon an ordered view of the whole that is as capacious and as rigorous as possible. “That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole,” Newman writes. When this philosophical habit of mind is developed, “it makes every thing in some sort lead to every thing else,” for man may thereby discern a pattern or an order in the cosmos and in the historical experience of his kind. Newman has precedent for this view in, for example, Thomas Aquinas, who observed that “to be wise is to establish order.”

Newman continues by noting that a sheer variety of subjects of study is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for achieving illumination:

The enlargement [of mind] consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas … It is the action of a formative power … it is a making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own … We feel our minds to be expanding then, when we not only learn, but refer what we learn to what we know already.

If we contrast this vision with that of the multiculturalists, we see that those who educate for post-modern man work to open minds without any thought that minds might try to close on the truth. Post-modern man is pure potential, pure instrumentality—and pure resignation in the face of universal chaos and flux. To Newman, man is much more. “To have even a portion of this illuminative reason and true philosophy,” he writes, “is the highest state to which nature can aspire in the way of intellect.” Developing philosophical habits of mind produces character traits such as “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” The name Newman gives to this human achievement, the telostoward which liberal education aims, is the gentleman.

Newman’s choice of this term to describe the goal of liberal learning was expedient in nineteenth-century England, for its attractiveness was reinforced by the prejudice of his time, which honored a particular socio-economic class and its habits. But Newman’s gentleman, understood philosophically, is not a mere well-born, well-mannered rich man. Newman used the term to provoke his contemporaries into re-evaluating what was valuable about a certain class of people. Today, we too often associate gentleman with that particular historical class, or with mere dilettantism. It is probably more faithful to the spirit of Newman to say that the telos of a liberal education is the civilized man. The civilized man is in part a cultivated man, a man whose experience of a culture’s best things is broad and rich, a connoisseur. We scoff at this, in no small part because we have rejected the distinction between high and low culture. But we should not. For it is a true and essential part—though only a part—of true education. The truly civilized man, the philosophical gentleman, has a healthy, perfected mind that prompts virtuous action. He is properly educated, and sees the extent and the limits of his knowledge. He has a certain pleasing modesty. Consequently, he displays habits of consideration, courtesy, and fair-mindedness, which are both moral and intellectual virtues. And because he possesses a view of the whole, he does not make the mistake of believing that intellectual virtue is the sole criterion of human value. The perfection of the intellect leads to the realization that intellection is not the whole of a human life.

We should go to college to become civilized in this way. This should also be the goal of our universities. Failing that, as is the case today, this should be the aspiration of each student.

Mark C. Henrie is Director of Academic Affairs and Senior Editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a non-profit educational organization whose purpose is to convey to successive generations of college youth a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society. He is the editor of The Intercollegiate Review, senior editor of Modern Age, and executive editor of the Political Science Reviewer. Mark is the author of A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum and editor of Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman. Mark was valedictorian at Dartmouth College and holds graduate degrees from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University. He resides in the borough of West Chester, Pennsylvania, with his wife Claudia and their young children, Maxwell, Cordelia, Raphael, and Benedict.